THE SKY HAD EXPLODED INTO CHAOS
Eight thousand feet above the earth, twelve Royal Air Force Sopwith Camels tangled with a mix of about twenty German Fokker Dr.1 triplanes and Albatros D.V biplanes. The aircraft criss-crossed the sky, each trying to find a target while avoiding becoming the latest victim in the war.
On that day, April 21, 1918, twenty-four-year-old Canadian Captain Roy Brown was leading Royal Air Force 209 Squadron in attacking a pair of German observation planes. Seeing their observers in danger, the expert pilots of jastas (squadrons) 5 and 11 rose to join the fight. The German squadrons formed part of the notorious and deadly flying circus led by the most famous pilot of the war, Manfred von Richthofen — the Red Baron.
The aircraft clashed over German trenches and began drifting toward Allied territory, helped by a rare east wind. In a torrent of noise and movement each plane circled, trying to get into a position to attack the enemy. What must have felt like an eternity took only minutes to conclude.
As the flight leader, Brown was on the lookout for both potential targets and fellow pilots in need of help. Below, he caught sight of one of his Sopwith Camels making for home. The pilot was his high school friend from Edmonton, Wilfrid “Wop” May, trying to extricate himself from his first real air battle. Behind him a lone red Fokker triplane was following and closing quickly.
Brown immediately put his own Sopwith Camel into a dive and headed to help his fellow pilot. The captain slowly closed in on the two fighters below, all the while watching his own tail to ensure he was not in imminent danger himself.
In what must have been agonizingly slow moments, Brown watched as the red triplane peppered his victim with short machine gun bursts. Finally, approaching from out of the sun, Brown let loose a long burst of machine gun fire from approximately three hundred metres away.
The pilot of the red triplane, realizing his suddenly precarious position, turned and dove. Brown, believing his fellow pilot to be safe, also turned away to help another distressed pilot who was being pursued by a pair of German fighters.
Brown, May, and all of their fellow pilots from 209 Squadron managed to return safely to their airfield. Lieutenant (and later air vice marshal) Francis Mellersh, who was leading one of the three flights and whom Brown had also helped, had witnessed the crash of the red triplane. It appeared that Brown had a confirmed kill.
While the pilots enjoyed their well-earned lunch they received a phone call. Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron himself, had been identified as the pilot of the red triplane. His dead body had been recovered from the aircraft.
Had Captain Roy Brown shot down and killed Germany’s greatest war ace?
Manfred von Richthofen and Roy Brown took very different paths to that fateful day in April 1918. Von Richthofen was a Prussian aristocrat born in what is today part of Poland. A strong and natural athlete, he had grown up riding horses and entered military training by age eleven. Hunting was a favourite pastime, and, like all great fighter pilots, von Richthofen was an excellent marksman.
He began the war as a cavalry officer, but with the weakness of mounted soldiers exposed by modern machine guns and artillery he was relegated to secondary duties. Bored with life behind the lines, he requested a transfer to the air force, which was accepted in October 1915. By September 1916 he had registered his first confirmed victory; by the end of the year he had reached fifteen kills.
On January 4, 1917, he shot down Canadian Flight Lieutenant Allan Switzer Todd, the first of forty-seven confirmed kills for von Richthofen that year. Over the course of the war the Red Baron would claim a total of nine Canadians killed or captured. His achievements of 1917 were only curtailed by a severe head wound in July that eventually left him on medical leave for most of September and October.
By 1918 von Richthofen was a household name in Germany. His autobiography Der Röte Kampfflieger ( The Red Fighter Pilot) was published that winter with the familiar red Fokker triplane on the cover. The book, a mix of personal experience and propaganda, was sent to hundreds of thousands of troops on the front lines. An English version was even published in the summer of 1918 after his death.
Von Richthofen was a hero of the German empire and his image could be found across Germany. He appeared in a film entitled Kriefslfier an Der Westfront (War fliers on the Western Front) that was shown across Germany. The film opens with scenes of new air pilots and several other leading German fighter pilots. “However,” notes film historian Michael Paris, “it is evident that the main subject is Richthofen; indeed the shots of the early aces appear only as a prelude which leads inexorably to the emergence of the Baron, the ‘Ace of Aces.’”
Each side needed heroes to distract from the never-ending bloodbath of the Western Front. Fighter pilots provided an ounce of chivalry and excitement that seemed to lift the war out of the mud and into the realm of knights of the sky. In reality the war was no more kind to the pilots who burned up, fell through the sky, or crashed to their deaths, but the perception that the war was somehow more fair and equitable in the air had significant purpose.
Roy Brown was born in Carleton Place, Ontario, in December 1893, about eighteen months after von Richthofen’s birth. Also a gifted athlete, he played several different sports and was even approached by the Ottawa Senators hockey team for a potential tryout.
After completing business training in Ottawa, Brown moved to Edmonton to live with his uncle and to finish his high school diploma. His goal was to eventually study business management at McGill University, but with the outbreak of war he set his sights on the skies. He paid for his own air training at the Wright School of Aviation near Dayton, Ohio. For $250 he received the necessary four hours of flight training that allowed him to volunteer for the Royal Naval Air Service.
While that sounds like an incredibly short period of flying time, it’s important to remember that at this stage flights were measured in minutes, not hours. It was only in December 1903 that Orville and Wilbur Wright had piloted the first successful powered flight on the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The first Canadian powered flight, organized by Alexander Graham Bell and flown by Douglas McCurdy, had followed in 1909. Only a few years later, pilots around the world were training for air battles
that could scarcely have been imagined only a few months before.
“We have had our altitude flights,” Brown explained in one of his letters home. “I was up to about 800 feet, cut off my engine and volplaned [went into a controlled dive] down. It is a great sensation to feel that you are going to land just wherever you wish.”
By November, after many delays, Brown was finally able to complete his training, and by mid-December he was in England learning the finer points of aerial combat in the Royal Naval Air Service. He achieved his first confirmed victory in July 1917 and added five more that September and October. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross in October, around the same time he was promoted to flight commander with No. 9 Squadron. In September 1917 Brown wrote home to his mother. The
Ottawa Citizen had published a letter from another pilot about the “thrilling” lifestyle of a modern-day fighter pilot. Brown’s response was unequivocal and provides a window into his experience of the war.
“If you have noticed, it is the chaps who do nothing that put those in [letters published in newspapers]. They are all talk,” Brown wrote. “When I write letters home they are for the family only. I do not care a rap whether people think I am doing anything or not. I did not come over here for that. I came because I felt I should come. I am doing my best and can do no more. I have been some help in this war and if anything happens to me
now, I have done some work anyway. If I am satisfied within myself that I have done as well as I can, that is all I care about.”
When the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service merged on April 1, 1918, Brown’s squadron became 209 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. It was only three weeks before he and his fellow pilots would encounter the Red Baron on April 21, 1918.
News of von Richthofen’s death was officially announced by the British the day after their encounter and at the same time that Australian soldiers were giving von Richthofen a full military burial. The news was published around the world, including in the New York Times.
General Ernst Wilhelm von Hoeppner, commander of the German air force, confirmed glumly that “He has Fallen.” Von Hoeppner announced that “the German Army has lost its greatly admired pilot and the fighting airmen their beloved leader. He remains the hero of the German peoples for whom he fought and died. His death is a deep wound for his Geschwader and for the entire Air Service. The will by which he conquered and led, that he handed down, will heal that wound.”
Several claims to have shot the Red Baron were immediately submitted. In addition to Brown, multiple Australian soldiers on the ground claimed to have fired the fatal shot, including Sergeant Cedric Popkin, gunner W. J. Evans, and gunner Robert Buie.
From the perspective of the newly formed Royal Air Force, there was little doubt that Canadian pilot Roy Brown had killed the Red Baron. Brown and his fellow pilots from 209 Squadron even managed to pull a few war trophies from von Richthofen’s aircraft, including his seat and a piece of the air fabric that wrapped his red triplane and bore the newly adopted German Balkenkreuz (cross) insignia. The pilots of 209 Squadron etched their names onto the cross to mark their moment in history. Both pieces are on display in the bar area of the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto, where they are a reminder of Canada’s aviation history.
The Australian commanders, on the other hand, vigorously supported the claims of their own soldiers. In the end the official coroner’s report was inconclusive, and the question of who killed the Red Baron has remained one of the great mysteries of the First World War.
Many intensive studies have been done, all of which reinforce the great challenges of reconstructing an aerial battle decades, or even a century, later. Tracking individual bullets through the fog of war, either in the air, at sea, or on the ground, is incredibly difficult.
Historians Norman Franks and Alan Bennett published the most intensive of these studies in 1998. Franks and Bennett meticulously unearthed and reviewed countless documents related to von Richthofen’s fateful final flight.
Roy Brown’s claim to have downed the Red Baron, while likely an honest one, is almost certainly not supported by the evidence at hand. After Brown attacked the Red Baron he saw von Richthofen dive, and two of his fellow pilots witnessed the German pilot’s crash after a steep vertical dive.
It’s understandable how these two events were assumed to be connected, but in fact there was a period of about ninety sec-
onds between Brown’s attack and the actual crash. After Brown’s initial attack, the Red Baron dove and then continued his pursuit of Wilfrid May. It was likely only after suffering some minor damage from Australian troops firing below that the German turned and headed for home.
While making this final dash the Red Baron made a long, slow turn into the wind, directly in front of several Australian ground positions. It’s most probable that the single bullet that struck von Richthofen under his armpit and exited through his chest was fired from one of their guns. The wound was substantial and almost certainly killed von Richthofen within seconds, giving him only enough time to crash-land in an empty field.
Franks and Bennett concluded in their original 1997 study that Sergeant Cedric Popkin, an Australian who was firing his Vickers machine gun on that fateful day, was most likely the person who fired the fatal shot. Popkin had fired at the Red Baron during his original pursuit of May and managed a second burst of fire as von Richthofen circled back towards his own lines.
Even then, Franks and Bennett added a footnote to their own study when it was republished in 2006. Evidence that became available after the original publication suggested that the Red Baron was flying directly at Popkin on his second pass, which would have made it impossible for the Australian to have shot him from the side. They concluded that “there is still the possibility that some unknown soldier had fired at the triplane yet had no reason to believe he had fired the telling shot. However, there is no definitive evidence for this, and Popkin remains the most likely candidate.”
Before Bennett died in January 2007, he completed a manuscript for a biography on Roy Brown that was later published with the help of Margaret Harmon, Brown’s daughter, and Denny May, Wilfrid May’s son. The publication stated, “Margaret Harmon, Denny May and Alan Bennett agree that the six years of effort and investigation which went into this book confirm that Captain A. Roy Brown initiated the chain of events which culminated in the death of Baron von Richthofen, and that a lucky shot, fired on the spur of the moment by a soldier who had hitherto not been involved, completed the task for him.”
Perhaps the real mystery of the death of the Red Baron is how such an experienced and deadly pilot could leave himself in such a vulnerable position flying over enemy territory. On the day of his death the wind was blowing irregularly from east to west, changing the flight times for all pilots. The wind may have pushed the Red Baron further over enemy lines than he believed.
The Germans were also flying over a particularly marshy and wet area of the front that didn’t provide obvious visual landmarks such as continuous trenches. This may have made identifying a location more difficult for von Richthofen, but at such a low altitude it may not have mattered.
Why was the Red Baron so obsessed with bringing down Wilfrid May?
Alan Bennett surmised that because von Richthofen, a crack shot, had hit May’s aircraft so many times while missing the pilot, he must have been trying to force May to land so that he could be captured. It’s also possible that von Richthofen was not fully recovered from the head wound he had suffered the previous July. If his judgment was impaired even a small amount, it may have led to his demise.
In the end, there are no clear answers. Brown’s moment with the Red Baron was the end of the war for him as well. He was officially taken off active service a few days later and spent the next few weeks resting in hospital. On April 27, 1918, he wrote home to his father, saying “I feel just about all in today the way things have gone. My stomach has been very bad recently and the doctor says if I keep on I shall have a nervous break-down and has ordered me to stop active service flying.”
He described his encounter with the Red Baron in the letter. “Our best effort was on the 21st when we fought Baron von Richthofen’s Circus as they are called. I expect you will have read about them in the newspapers,” Brown explained to his father. “It was the most terrible fight I have ever seen in the air. I doubt whether there has been one like it before. We shot down three of their triplanes, which were seen to crash…. Among these was the Baron whom I shot down on our side of the lines.”
Brown continued hopefully, “It is bound to have a great effect on the Hun especially when they lost their best fighter and their stunt squadron was defeated.”
While serving as an air trainer, Brown was involved in a crash that left him in hospital for the remainder of the war. He would never fully escape the grasp of the Red Baron, as he continued to be both celebrated and haunted by his encounter with von Richthofen and by the controversy that continued.
In response to a request for more information from the Australian magazine Reveille after the war, Brown wrote, “As far as I am concerned, I knew in my own mind what happened, and the war being over, the job being done, there is nothing to be gained by arguing back and forth as to who did this and who did that. The main point is that, from the stand-point of the troops in the war, we gained our objective.”
Last Combat of the Red Baron, by Frank Wooton.
Top: Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron, and fellow German pilots, circa 1917. The Red Baron is seated in the plane’s cockpit. Bottom Left: Von Richthofen with one of his triplanes. Bottom Right: A 1917 portrait of the Red Baron by photographer C. J. von Dühren.
Top: Lieutenant Wilfrid “Wop” May in 1920. May’s nickname stuck after a little cousin mispronounced his first name as “Woppie.” Bottom: A 1917 photograph of Captain Arthur Roy Brown, the Canadian credited with shooting down the Red Baron.
Bottom Left: The Red Baron wears bandages due to a head injury that some historians say was a factor in his fatal flight.
Bottom Right: Members of the Australian military show off pieces of wreckage from the Red Baron’s triplane on April 22, 1918. Some historians argue that an Australian fired the fatal bullet that killed the Red Baron.
Top: The Richthofen Museum, in the Red Baron’s family home in Schweidnitz, Germany, displays souvenirs of the pilot’s many aerial victories. Following the Second World War, the town was annexed by Poland and renamed Swidnica.
As a show of respect for the Red Baron, Australian troops fire a salute at his grave in Amiens, France, on April 22, 1918. The German ace was given a full military funeral by the Allied forces.